In our most precarious times, it’s often a stranger’s disembodied voice that answers our call for help.
“911, what’s your emergency?” However, if you call from a Buncombe County location at the right time,
that voice might belong to Fairview’s own Kenny Davall.
From the beginning
“I was born and raised here,” Davall says of his hometown. “Went to Fairview Elementary, Reynolds
Middle, and graduated from AC Reynolds High back in 2002.” He points up the road towards Asheville
and adds, “I started at Reynolds’ Fire Department when I was 16; would’ve started at 15 but they said I
was too young.”
Then, the day after his ACRHS graduation, Davall went to work at the Buncombe County 911 Center. He
continued working part time as a firefighter, including a stint at the Asheville Airport where he worked
for nine years as an Aircraft Firefighter.
On the job with VIPs
“That was fun!” he says with more boyish enthusiasm than you would expect from someone whose job
was literally to put out airplane fires. “Mostly they were general health calls, but I worked a few plane
It wasn’t all fire and rescue though. “We got to do security detail for presidents when they came to the
area,” he adds rattling off names, “I’ve met Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden; plus John McCain,
Sarah Palin, and Hillary Clinton.” He pauses, looks up as if trying to remember other VIPs. “I think that’s
it,” he determines. “But I can’t tell you anything about that really,” he says, tilting his head and leaning
in. “Secret service….”
From face to face to voice to voice
Though he would still volunteer as a firefighter in a pinch, Davall’s primary job now is as Assistant
Supervisor of the Buncombe County Emergency Communications Center. Davall helps to manage the
center which is far busier than many locals may realize. They receive an average of 500 calls in a single
24-hour period. That’s 500 individual contacts handled by the 10-12 people who serve as Emergency
Communicators. That does not even count the 800 or so admin calls that come in during the same 24
hours. 911: it’s a busy place. Who knew?
“Not all of them are true emergencies, though,” Davall explains and then interrupts himself, “Do not call
911 if it’s not an emergency!”
Only call 911 in the case of true emergencies
When operators are taking those nonurgent calls, they cannot address true crises, a fact that could lead
to tragedy. Pranks are not the norm, though; often people have simply miscategorized their
circumstances. Davall chuckles, recalling, “They call asking why their trash hasn’t been picked up or to
report bears walking through their yards.” And the stereotypical cat-in-the-tree scenario? They get that
too. “Plus, this one guy called to complain that his remote control wasn’t working!” Davall smiles and
shrugs his shoulders as he continues, “So I said, ‘Maybe change the batteries, sir?’” But really, don’t call
911 unless you have a true emergency. They have more than enough to handle without those
The job of a 911 dispatcher
“Our job is to help the callers and to protect our first responders,” Davall says. “When COVID hit, it was
scary, because we didn’t want our responders to walk into a situation where they could get the virus,
then go home and take it to their families. We asked a lot of questions so our responders could be
prepared for what they would face.”
“These days, nearly half of our calls have to do with drug overdose. It’s sad,” Davall says shaking his
head. “So many overdoses these days. It’s much worse now than it used to be.” All Buncombe County
first responders—police, firefighters, or EMTs—carry Narcan, the medication that can save lives by
reversing the effects of an overdose. Private citizens also have access to Narcan for free locally through
The Steady Collective (thesteadycollective.org).
Those calls are hard, but it’s worse when a child has been hurt, “When you hear it is a kid, you feel it in
your gut. But you give it a split second and then you react calmly. We have the skills to help,” he says.
Emergency communicators have first aid certification and are also qualified as EMTs and CPR
instructors. That means that, even over the phone, 911 operators can help a novice administer CPR.
The worst and the best
“I guess the saddest thing, though, is when I know my voice is the last thing they will hear,” Davall says.
“I just keep saying to the person, ‘Help is on the way,’ or ‘They’re coming to you.’ I never say everything
will be okay; I don’t know if it will be, so I don’t say it.” Davall’s voice, laced with WNC’s trademark
mountain drawl, gets even softer and more gentle as he says, “I tell them they aren’t alone and that
we’re going to do what we can to help. That’s all I can say.” And in such moments, what could possibly
be more comforting than that?
Davall perks up and remarks, “I’ve also delivered babies over the phone! It’s awkward and everything,
but when I hear the baby cry,” he puts his hand to his chest, “I think, ‘I was a part of this. I helped.’”
And that seems to be Davall’s goal in most things: to be a helper, a non-anxious presence in troubled
times, a faithful friend. “You hear about firefighters and police officers being one big family? 911 is like
that too,” he clasps his hands, interlocking his fingers. “We love our work and we’re there for each
other,” he says. “Buncombe 911, it’s home.”
This piece first appeared in our local paper, The Fairview Town Crier, where I write a monthly column called Folks of Fairview. You can read the Crier online here.